- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 11, 2006

BERLIN — Italy is ecstatic, Germany is proud, and the rest of the soccer world is in trouble.

Actually, so is Italian soccer, but at least the Azzurri have their fourth World Cup championship to celebrate. Later this week, four of Serie A’s most formidable teams, with 13 of the 23 national team players, face demotion in a match-fixing scandal.

That the Italians brought home the trophy in such stressful circumstances is laudable.

“I got my award. That’s it right there,” said Azzurri captain Fabio Cannavaro, gesturing toward the World Cup trophy sitting on a table in front of him yesterday morning. “I’m extremely pleased with what I have.”

Also admirable is Germany’s response to staging the most popular event in sports. The hosts made it a monthlong Oktoberfest for the fans: no fighting, lots of fun.

“We know how this euphoria carried us through the tournament,” said tournament scoring leader Miroslav Klose after Germany finished third.

Too bad the soccer didn’t live up to those standards.

This World Cup set a record for cautions with 345 yellow cards, a 27 percent jump from 2002, and an astounding 28 red cards. The lasting image of Germany 2006 will not be Azzurri players doing an impromptu Tarantella on the trophy stand, but France captain Zinedine Zidane turning his final act before retirement into pure thuggery.

Fabio Grosso’s winning penalty kick in the final was overshadowed by Zidane’s head butt to the chest of Marco Materazzi in the 110th minute.

And this from the man named yesterday outstanding player of the tournament, a three-time world player of the year.

Zidane’s actions illustrate much of what is ailing international soccer. While the World Cup should be the ultimate showcase for the sport, this year it pointed out everything that needs to be changed before South Africa 2010.

For one, sportsmanship is almost nonexistent after kickoff. For all the pageantry before games, the calls to end racism, the shaking of hands by opponents and the exchanging of gifts, once the whistle blows, players ignore the rules.

They dive at the slightest touch, seeking fouls and cautions for the opposition. They tug on shirts or shorts. The elbows fly. Cleats come up on tackles.

As often as not in this World Cup, they got away with it.

“Referees are only human, and let me say players are not making their jobs more easy,” said Franz Beckenbauer, the German soccer great and head of the local organizing committee. “Players just fall on the ground, roll around and try to incite the referee. This is so exaggerated now what people are simulating.”

The problem with cracking down on such shenanigans was obvious to players, coaches and fans in Germany: Referee crews couldn’t keep up with the pace of the game.

That led to inconsistent officiating at best. When officials are handing out penalty kicks for obvious dives and three yellow cards to one player in a match, the veracity of the World Cup is challenged.

FIFA must also deal with the length of the international schedule, which can ravage the World Cup. Players are exhausted from the long, difficult club seasons and the various tournaments. Many enter the sport’s premier event running on fumes.

Of the final eight games, fewer than half delivered compelling soccer. The most important one, Sunday’s final, was sloppy, unimaginative and often dull.

What chance does the World Cup have to provide a great show on the field when the three critical ingredients — fair play, creativity and proper officiating — disappear?

After Portugal and the Netherlands combined for records of 16 yellow cards and four ejections in a second-round match, Portugal coach Luiz Felipe Scolari said:

“We have to ask whether we played in a disgraceful way, with play-acting, or whether what happened was brought about by refereeing issues.”

FIFA has nearly four years to address the issues that plagued this World Cup.

If national leagues balk at a reduction of games leading into a World Cup year, FIFA can afford to compensate them, using some of its multibillion-dollar television rights fees.

To improve refereeing, FIFA might need to get radical, perhaps going to the two-referee system that has worked so well in the NHL. More officiating clinics would help, too, in upgrading the level of consistency.

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